August 18, 2002
Just three weeks from today, millions of Jews around the world and especially in Israel, will celebrate the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.
Regardless of denomination or label, those worshippers actually inside the synagogue, will share two experiences.
They will hear the shofar, the ram's horn, and they will precede those sounds by hearing the same reading from the Torah, from Genesis 22, and it will begin as follows.
"And it was after these things, and God tested Abraham. And he said to him "Abraham". And HE said, "I am here".
And then, having captured Abraham's attention, God commands him, in the most heartrending manner a father can imagine in his worst nightmare, to take his beloved son Isaac, and sacrifice him.
Now you all know how the story ends. Abraham does not sacrifice his son; at the last minute an angel stops him; and a ram is sacrificed instead.
As far as the Biblical account tells us, Abraham and Isaac never speak again.
And yet knowing how the story ends, even as we repeat it some 3000 years after it was written, doesn't make its telling any less charged, any less compelling, or any less disturbing.
Each new generation that comes to this archetypal story of fathers and sons, told in just 18 short Biblical sentences, finds itself grappling with it anew.
Is this a book launch or a sermon? A publishing event or a theology seminar?
Bernard in particular must be suffering from déjà vu.
Having read his evocative account of his bar mitzvah in "My Father, My Father", -- you'll find it brilliantly sketched on pages 57-60-- and his pained recollection of the recitation from the Torah and the Prophets in the Temple on that day, I suspect he's really beginning to regret that he asked me to be the launcher.
So I owe it to him, to his publisher Henry Rosenbloom at Scribe Publications who deserves commendation for publishing this singular story, and to all of you who've indulged me thus far, to try to explain why.
Explain, that is, why I'm NOT reviewing the book, NOR summarising the story, NOT paraphrasing the blurb on the cover, NOR talking about multiculturalism or immigration, NOT discussing the sociology of Melbourne's Jewish community, NOR the psychotherapy of the same community, NOT commenting on Bernard's fascination with cricket, NOR even roasting him as an accountant He's a very good accountant.
That's what I'm NOT doing.
I'm also not going to discuss the book's important contribution as a post-Holocaust memoir, something which Henry Rosenbloom has mentioned, nor such features as the vital re-telling of the story of the Warsaw Ghetto, something Bernard does so well.
And I'm not even going to dwell on the personal connection, of which Bernard was unaware. And that is that my father, like his, also came from Warsaw.
The Warsaw streets to which Bernard refers, Mila, Nalewki, Ostrowska, were as familiar to me in my childhood from my father's stories as were the Carlton streets.. Drummond, Lygon, and Rathdowne. Execpt that they had a shadow-like quality, not quite real, not quite unreal.
But why, then, instead of all those areas, and why instead of the more familiar literary genres, such as the mythic concept of the hero's journey, which I COULD have offered as the one most relevant to My Father, My Father, have I chosen the story of Abraham and Isaac?
There were two interwoven reasons which led me to my choice.
Now when Ozick says " centrally Jewish" she doesn't mean that the story happens to be about Jews, or that it deals with Jewish history, or that the writer happens to be Jewish, or even that it's written in a Jewish language, such as Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino.
By "centrally Jewish" she means Jewish literature that touches on the liturgical. Obviously, she says, this doesn't refer only to prayer or to stories about faith and religion. It refers to a type of literature, and to a type of perception.
Its defining quality is the story's engagement with the moral imagination.
My Father, My Father does that. It engages the moral imagination.
It also reflects the writer's considerable moral courage in his unflinchingly honest account.
Bernard's struggle to learn about his father and his family, to come to grips with how the child became the man and the man became the father, in his own case and in his father's, is at its core, a moral struggle.
In that sense, too, it is decidedly pre-modern, and defiantly NOT post-modern.
I, for one, can pay it no higher compliment.
And whatever else the story of Abraham and Isaac may be, it is, together with the story of Abraham and his other son Ishmael which precedes it, the first great moral epic of fathers and sons in Western civilization's literary tradition.
The second reason for choosing the Rosh Hashanah connection, the link with the Jewish New Year, is the NATURE of the moral struggle to which I've referred, as it unfolds from the book's beginning.
In the beginning, the writer-and it is both the writer whom we don't know as well as Bernard whom we do, or think we do -In the beginning, the writer has terrible headaches: and he knows that will continue, despite medication, until he can bring his heart to understand the head's pain.
What follows, and here again this is what I read, as distinct from what Bernard may have intended to write, is a story of repentance and forgiveness, the themes around which the Jewish New Year revolves.
In the Jewish tradition, repentance comes first.
We are obliged to repent and seek forgiveness ourselves before we can fully forgive others.
At the risk of reminding Bernard and many of you here of rabbinical sermons past, the Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah.
Teshuvah is an intriguing word. It means both answer and return.
And in this story, answer and return are intimately linked.
As you will find when you begin this story and then cannot put it down, the writer demands an answer: The question is: My Father who were you?
And, indeed, he
does not find that ANSWER until he RETURNS: to his childhood and his father's
childhood, to his immediate family and his father's family, and to his
and their shared experience as Jews in the 20th century, as he speaks
and writes to them in Australia, Europe, North America, South America
And there are no answers until there is repentance and then forgiveness.
Perhaps, for some of you who've read this book already, and for the many who will, you may think my thoughts about it as expressed here today have been "Too Jewish, too Jewish".
Like Jackie Mason I make no apologies, and I'm sure you would not expect me to do so.
But I will say this: just as the story of Abraham and Isaac, father and son, while deeply rooted in a distinctive faith and cultural tradition, indeed because it's so distinctively rooted, speaks to all of humanity, in the same way so does this Australian Jewish story of Bernard and Stan, son and father.
So thank you Bernard, in all sorts of ways, for enriching our understanding, but especially for asking me to launch your very special book.
I urge everyone here to buy it, read it and ponder, and to spread the word. Make sure your children read it.
And to all of you, Shanah Tovah. A Happy New Year.